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The Truth About Electric Vehicle Emissions

Electric vehicle emissions and air quality quantified, depending on energy source.
Electric vehicle emissions and air quality quantified, depending on energy source. (WWS is Wind, Water, Solar)

Much like creative cropping can completely change the nature of a photo, creative writing can completely change the nature of a report, such as a recent electric vehicle emissions report released by the University of Minnesota (UM).

As we know, electric vehicles themselves do not generate emissions, as they do not burn fossil fuels. On the other hand, it is quite obvious they get their energy from somewhere, meaning electric vehicle emissions are generated somewhere else. Depending on where you charge, electric vehicle emissions can vary quite widely, so one does well to consider environmental impact when considering making the switch to an electric vehicle.

According to the UM report, Life Cycle Air Quality Impacts of Conventional and Alternative Light-Duty Transportation in the United States, there are a number of ways to charge an electric vehicle, from coal-fired power plants to photovoltaic solar panels. Each of these have a measureable impact on the environment, from air quality to greenhouse gas emissions, and can be quite shocking when considered on the whole. According to my own research, for example, there are a number of places in the US where electric vehicle emissions are worse than even gas-guzzling conventional vehicles, such as in 98%-coal-fired Washington, DC, whereas electric vehicles in other states generate almost zero emissions, such as 95%-renewable-energy-powered Vermont. There’s no problem with the report, which states,

“We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or “grid average” electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.”

Where things interesting is when writers attempt to spin, such as I’m probably doing right now, the results of the article, taking the first sentence in my quote and ignoring the second and third. Are articles written to inform or sensationalize? I would truly hope the former, yet there seems to be no end of articles pointing out that electric vehicles are an environmental abomination, as we’ve repeatedly covered, on The Green Optimistic, such as here, here, and here. Do electric vehicles generate emissions? Yes, but it depends on where you charge them, so don’t pay attention to a single sensationalist headline, such as Study: Your all-electric car may not be so green, on (No way!) Fox News.

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